“We're in a moment of challenging the norm,” says Britton Smith, Be More Chill star and co-founder of Broadway Advocacy Coalition. That challenge is happening in the streets, on stages, and in the wings. But there is another norm that must be challenged: in education.
As theatre programs at predominantly white universities continue to diversify their student population to accept more BIPOC students, a second question must be asked: How can those students reach their full potential? It’s not enough to let them in the building; safe and welcoming spaces—the definitions of which have evolved—must be created as well.
Smith came of age in a program at Pace University that prided itself on colorblindness. “Now I'm like, ‘That's a mistake,’” he reflects. “Because when you don't see my color, you really can't see my history. You can't see my full self. You're not even going to be able to give me material that I would be able to really tap into because not only do you not see my color, but if you were to give me a role, you're going to put me in a nuanced version of what you think Black is going to look like in the industry.” Today, colorblindness isn’t the goal. Color-consciousness is.
In fact, for Michael McElroy—a Tony-nominated performer, professor, and Director of Diversity Initiatives at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University—the approach must not only include a student’s color but their full self. “We are no longer in the training spaces of my day when it was solely about the training. It is integral to how we train across studios that we train and support the entirety of the student in a more holistic way,” he tells Playbill.
“We do not choose for the student when it comes to identity. We encourage the students to identify themselves. We cannot always know a student's racial, ethnic, or gender identity by what we see. It is important not to make assumptions. Gender pronouns are a part of how we identify and how our students do, as well,” McElroy continues. “We are then in conversation about the training, and crafting an artistic experience and journey that will celebrate that student as they step into their full selves as artists and community members.”
Artistic and self-discovery begins on Day One (be it arrival to university campus or district school) and can only occur in a “safe space,” meaning a place where students feel comfortable to try things out, play, and explore, without fear of ridicule or rejection. An “equitable space” further expands to one in which the experiences of those in that place are deeply and meaningfully embedded in the public discourse and the policy decision-making.
Set a Classroom Standard
Be it Acting 101 or Biology 202, undergraduate students arrive to campus with only the firsthand experiences from their hometown, their high school, and their family. Often, white students arrive on college campuses without having meaningfully interacted with Black peers (or other peers of color) due to the racially segregated realities of the U.S. This “segregated white socialization” can lead to unchallenged, racist beliefs and misconceptions—but educators can shift that perspective to an actively anti-racist one for all students and, therefore, more safety for students of color.
“If we pretend like racism isn't a part of our fabric and our roots as a country … it will continue to be a big virus,” says Smith. “So we acknowledge it. The first day of rehearsal to me is such an important piece of advocacy. With BAC, [we say] there must be something in place that says, ‘Hey guys, this is what sexual harassment is. We will not tolerate it. And also, this is what an anti-racist rehearsal room looks like and we're going to hold each other accountable.’ I think that schools can do that same thing with orientation on the first day to bring the student body together.”
An anti-racist rehearsal room or classroom abides by agreed-upon tenets. BAC recommends working with or referring to resources from the Alliance for Quality Education, a partner organization since March 2018, or NYU’s Metro Center for Research and Equity on the Transformation of Schools, a partner since May 2018, to establish these. If the faculty and administration do not include people of color (first, hire more diverse staff) consider hiring a consultant like Rebecca Kelly G or The People’s Institute. Smith urges, “You cannot—in best intentions—create an anti-racist document without Black people a part of it.”
Staff and faculty, BIPOC or not, must also be trained in equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging—a policy Tisch stringently abides.
Culturally Responsive Curriculum
This equips staff to collaborate more effectively and serve students by meeting them where they are, rather than molding students to serve expectations. “You're going to have a voice lesson and is your voice teacher going to strip you of your natural, ancestral, Black sound?” asks Smith. “You have to be able to grow the seeds that you plant in your program. You cannot treat a sunflower like a rose, but you can go to that same garden and grow it and give it sun and light. But, one may need more light than the other.”
“[BAC co-founder] Amber [Iman] was saying that she learned how to sing healthily from Black teachers who still were teaching her [to] raise your soft palate and all those things that keep us being healthy without feeling like she was losing her sense of self and natural gift,” Smith continues. “I had a horrible experience with a lot of my voice teachers telling me, ‘Your voice is too heavy. Take the soul out. Take this out.’ By the time I left school, I was thinking in a way that they were so proud of, but I felt so disconnected from.”
The most effective development of BIPOC artists requires BIPOC leadership that informs the program in ways like a culturally responsive curriculum. “I was not taught one thing in my four years of Pace about a playwright, or an acting method that was not Eurocentric or based in Greek mythology or like understanding of theatre,” says Smith. “There's this idea that theatre was created by white people. And so you have to learn this white understanding and buy into the white standard of what good theatre is. African people have been storytellers from Day One. Even our Asian brothers and sisters have been telling stories from their inception. Why is that not included in our curriculum? So then we look at well, who creates our curriculum?
“It goes from our curriculum to our faculty not being diverse, to our administrators approving curriculum, to what we deem as the standard of excellence to even look like and be,” Smith adds.
If students learn Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare and Edward Albee, they should also learn August Wilson and David Henry Hwang and Quiara Alegría Hudes. The dramatists and works students learn from must show range. Tisch Drama created the Archive of Voices, “an archive of plays written solely by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ writers,” McElroy explains. “It serves as a research source for the classroom work as well as offering performance opportunities within the studios.”
And McElroy’s approach is to push everyone to learn everything. “I'm a firm believer—and this is controversial—that students should be working on pieces and work outside of their identities while in training,” he says. “When done in a holistic way, it teaches and fosters empathy and an understanding of experiences outside of our own. It can create healing and understanding on another level and prepare our students to go out into the world to transform the field.”
But for transformation, students must feel empowered to communicate and participate in their own education. Departments must have an established pipeline for students to communicate their needs and report violations both through a known chain of command and an anonymous reporting structure.
More than communication, there must also be community. In the NYU model, nine Affinity Groups across 10 studios and 10 student organizations (known as The Alliance) coalesce the student body and facilitate open lines of dialogue—even outside of the school year—and continues to work in overdrive to foster community in the COVID-19 era. “The Alliance hosted Tisch Drama's very first Virtual Student Fair, where new students and returning students could come and meet the leaders in Zoom breakout rooms and hear about how they can find support, community, and artistic creative possibilities here in our department,” McElroy explains.
As McElroy says, “The more voices and lived experiences we are exposed to—and the more we develop the cultural competencies to be in community together—the more we will be able to meet the field in a new and exciting way that could potentially change where it is today.”